What Seven Years Of Jiu-Jitsu Have Taught Me About Life

BJJ Lessons Win - Jonathan Borba

It’s a rare thing to come across fellow grapplers here on WordPress, so it was a treat meeting someone like Betsy, who shares her exploits on the mats in a much more entertaining way than I can.

So instead of story time, I figured I’d go with something truer to my style, as demonstrated in my Lessons Learned From Climbing post.

Without further ado, let’s go ahead and explore the lessons I’ve learned from my seven odd years I’ve spent grappling.

1. You just gotta show up

Boom. Mic drop. Post over. This is the best lesson I’ve gleaned from my entire grappling career. You want to get better? All you need to do is to just. Show. Up.

Ask me what lesson I learned three years back. Actually, don’t. Because I have no idea. I can’t even remember what moves we practised last month. But all those classes are now a part of me, making me the grappler that I am.

Is there a chance we might practise the same moves in future classes? Definitely. Is that a waste of time? Definitely not.

Regardless of how well you do, or how much of a clueless knob you feel like sometimes, you just need to go home and get ready to do the same thing the next day, and the day after that. And the next.

How does this relate to life? People say that only perfect practice makes perfect. I say screw perfection. You can’t go wrong by constantly filling up a blank page, or picking up your guitar, or going to the gym.

Stuart standing with other grapplers in Aesthetic Jiu-Jitsu

Brace yourself. Lotsa potato-quality pics up ahead. Me starting my jiu-jitsu journey in 2015.

2. Life is a marathon

Here are some popular BJJ platitudes for you:

  • It’s not about who’s best. It’s about who’s left.
  • A black belt is just a white belt who never quit.
  • It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Yeah, I’m just going to let these cheesy-but-true sayings speak for themselves. Basically, look at things in the long run (heh).

How does this relate to life? It doesn’t matter how well you run mile five in a hundred-mile race. You can even walk the entire way if that means you get to cross the finish line.

3. You can’t fake mat time

The thing I love most about jiu-jitsu is that no matter what colour your belt is, there’s no hiding your competence (or lack of) the moment you exchange grips with your opponents. Unlike a fake CV, you can’t talk yourself up and expect to get away with it.

I’ve had the pleasure of sparring with a ton of people from all over the world, and all I can say is this: the only people I can handle are the ones who’ve trained less than me.

This means that there’s no other way to learn the craft other than to actually do it. You have to spar, drill, show up.

How does this relate to life? Don’t spend more time trying to appear better than you actually are. Don’t be a fake guru teaching people to earn money when you can’t even pay rent. You can’t fake competence in the long run.

BJJ Win

Winning my first match ever.

4. There are always risks in life

I’ve injured myself so often from martial arts that I feel grateful after finishing a class relatively unscathed.

I’ve separated both shoulders and my ribs, broken a toe, torn my abdominal wall, compressed my spine—and that’s considered mild compared to the gnarly injuries my buddies have gone through.

Which is why people are quick to judge when they see me right back on the mats once I heal. “You’re asking for it,” they say. “It’s so dangerous.”

Well, you know what’s also dangerous? Life. I’ve broken my hand chasing my sister around a table as a kid. I also broke my wrist falling in the bathroom.

We’re subject to risks the moment we’re born. Skateboarding may be dangerous, but so is driving. You could follow all safety precautions and still get mangled by a drunk driver. So don’t listen to the naysayers when they call you stupid for wanting to pursue a sport you like or a business venture you believe in.

How does this relate to life? You have as much risk of losing your livelihood with a day job compared to owning a business. But don’t quote me on that. I’m not a statistician.

5. Learning is not linear

Even after seven years of this pursuit (excluding five extra years of muay thai), I still feel like an alien commandeering a meat vehicle sometimes. My reflexes are dodgy, and my limbs move in ways I don’t want them to.

On the flip side, I’ve also assimilated some fancy abilities into muscle memory. I don’t know how I acquired them. For instance, whenever someone tries to crush me but leans too far across, I’m able to detect that shift and tip them over.

It’s like cycling, you know? First you go through a period of not knowing what you’re doing. And then one day you realise that you can balance on two wheels. Was it the training wheels that helped? Was it your dad pushing you? Who knows?

All that matters is that you didn’t know how to do it before. And the next moment, you could.

How does this relate to life? You won’t know if that paragraph you write today would turn into a novel, or if the weights you’re lifting will even contribute to muscle building. But trust in the process and one day, you’ll just ‘get it’. Don’t quote me on that either. I’m not a scientist.

Stuart's coach tying a blue belt around his waist

Getting the elusive blue belt in 2017

6. Life is unfair

I weigh 65 kilos (140 lbs) soaking wet. So it’s not uncommon for me to be the smallest guy in the gym (refer to Phuket pic above).

And I can tell you that it sucks having to wrestle bigger guys all the time. I just want a fair fight for once, you know? But you know what? That’s life. And you know what else? What I lack in mass, I make up for in cardio.

That’s why I’ve learned to play a loose game against bigger guys, and not try to go head-to-head with them. I duck under their legs, hop from side to side, keep them moving. I don’t try to hold them down, because they’ll just benchpress me off like a soggy, whiny barbell. Instead, I try to funnel them towards their weaknesses, which is horizontal aerobic dancing.

You know what that’s taught me? It’s that life is unfair, yes, and I may not be stronger than most of my opponents. But it’s also unfair—in my favour—that the bigger guys need more oxygen for their muscles. It’s all about how we choose to look at it.

But what if I meet someone who’s stronger and has more cardio than me? Well, like I said, life’s unfair.

How does this relate to life? If life were truly fair, we’d be living a communist’s wet dream. Are you a communist? Didn’t think so.

BJJ Kristina

Getting to roll with world-class black belt, Kristina Barlaan.

In the end, learning is optional

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this post is that everything in life has the ability to teach us something. It’s whether or not we want to learn from them. Maybe that’s why I enjoy collecting hobbies. Not because I like doing more things, but because I want to know more about myself.


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101 thoughts on “What Seven Years Of Jiu-Jitsu Have Taught Me About Life

  1. Learning is optional. That’s hilarious.

    Also very very true across the board here. Definitely true of writing, fiction, etc. There’s nothing more to do than read a lot and write a lot, in the end. Read more and better books and you’ll write more and better books. Write more and better books and you’ll be attracted to read more and better books

    Can’t fake mat time. So true

    thanks for this

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  2. Found your blog via Betsy.

    5 & 3/4 years in to my BJJ Journey – all of this is 100% accurate. I especially loved points 1 & 3.

    Glad to find another grappler on here contributing in a positive way to the community!

    Like

    • Yay for Betsy and making another BJJ friend! Am always stoked to see a fellow jiujitero here on WordPress.

      And yeah, #3 is the reason why I’ve stopped caring about belts and stripes (doing a lot of no-gi also does that). The roll speaks for itself.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by, Tom!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow Stuart this is an interesting blog and I am glad that you are open to learning and discovering hobbies in a quest to figure more about yourself and what you are capable of. This post has made me to actually start doing those other hobbies I never thought I can do such as swimming, I would love to swim one day especially now during the summer.

    Also, I agree that in life risks are there such as getting injured or worse have a disability but life is worth living and it is a marathon not a sprint as you mentioned here. This is a very inspiring blog for those who live in fear and congrats on winning that Jiu Jitsu match for the first time🙌🙌

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    • I’ve only recently started learning to swim too! Couldn’t swim for most of my life, and it definitely gave me a new perspective of myself when I finally could. I hope you do get on that ASAP.

      I’ve learned that marathon lesson here on WordPress, because there was one time I was burnt out by the number of blog tasks I had, and after I dialled back, I realised that it’s okay to go slow, as long as I keep moving forward. Anyway, thanks for your lovely comment!

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  4. While I’ve never done martial arts ever (even though it sounds pretty cool), I can only agree with everything you say! Some of those things I have to repeat myself over and over again, especially that sometimes you just have to show up, because in the end, done is sometimes better than perfect. I had never heard of “A black belt is just a white belt who never quit.” and I really like it, I think it will stick with me! Thanks for sharing these lessons learnt!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That black belt quote stuck with me as well ever since I’d heard it. It puts something so substantial into a better perspective. Like to achieve your biggest dreams, you just need to have faith and stick it out, instead of aiming for that home run.

      Always a treat reading your lovely comments!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Great points! Thanks for sharing your jiu-jitsu journey with us. Point five about learning not being a linear process really resonated with me today. I think sometimes we don’t notice the progress we’ve made because we’re too busy comparing ourselves to someone else or to some crazy goal that we’re just not ready for. Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break and realize how far we’ve already come. :)

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    • I feel that way all the time. It’s almost like I’m not learning anything, because I always feel like I’m at the same level when I started. But once I actually take the time to look at my journey in retrospect, then I see how far I’ve come. Thanks so much for your lovely comment, Sarah!

      Liked by 1 person

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  7. I mean, what can I not love here? The first point was of course the best and my favorite. And your first platitude was awesome. I’m going to remind myself of that one frequently.

    Your injuries sound gnarly. My torn foot ligament is no fun, to be sure, but torn abdominal wall? Yikes.

    If it makes you feel any better, my instructor is 130 pounds. Still, he is not a dude anyone would want to mess with. When you really know your stuff, size doesn’t matter. And I am 100 pounds, so clearly this is something I believe in. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing this. For me, the key is, if I ever needed to use this in real life, chances are it would be against someone who doesn’t know ju-jitsu. Therefore, I would have a fighting chance. Pun intended.

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    • Weirdly enough, the abdominal injury felt like a pop in my groin, so I thought I tore that muscle. And I wasn’t even doing anything extreme. I was just tensing up to prevent myself being swept, and then it went.

      It wasn’t as terrible as it sounded though, because I could still function. But changing positions during sleep at night was a chore for a week.

      I’ve always believed that small people become more technical due to the sheer need to be. Because we’re not going to get techniques to work by using strength. The journey there is a grind though. Here’s to us developing a killer small-person game!

      You have been wonderful, Betsy. I now relinquish your ‘eyes on you’ status. :P

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m glad that injury wasn’t terrible. I have an MRI scheduled for the 26th. That’s three days shy of two months after the accident. I just hope when/if I get back on the mat, I haven’t forgotten everything.

        Killer small-person game! YES!

        Not that I should remind you of this, but I still have that “how you earn a living from your self-pubbed book” to go! Don’t let your eye fingers down too quickly. :P

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      • Your injury sounds gnarlier than all I’ve been through, to be honest, since it’s been quite some time now. Only my separated rib lasted quite a few months.

        And now I feel bad for asking you to catch up with my posts. I would make for a terrible dictator :P

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      • Oooh, the separated rib. Months? Could you function okay? I’m guessing you weren’t in class. How were you able to retain your knowledge. Actually, when I met you, it seemed you had been away from JJ for a while. Was it like riding a bike?

        And I’m catching up with your posts because I want to, so no worries.

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      • I could function, as in it wasn’t chronic pain, but I couldn’t take a deep breath, sneeze, move in certain ways, or get a massage. So yeah, I was out of class for a few months. Went back into it fine.

        My most recent hiatus was about two years, since the lockdowns started, and while I roll like I used to (I think), I’ve also lost my memory on the ‘game’ type stuff, like X-guard, deep half, and the like.

        Hopefully you don’t get too rusty once your injury’s over and done with!

        Liked by 1 person

      • A Few Months. Yowsa. Okay, so I DEFINITELY can’t complain to you about this. Although, my left leg is so much skinnier than the right now. I’ll need some physical therapy once I’ve recovered. :/

        I don’t even know those terms you speak of! Ha! Well, glad you haven’t truly lost your touch–and hope I don’t either. Remains to be seen. Glad to have a blogger to discuss this with, though!

        Like

    • That’s what I do with travel blogs too! Just envisioning myself being on the Western hemisphere someday while looking at idyllic pics from Scotland or something, lol. Thanks for dropping by, Hetty!

      Like

  8. I’ve been doing Shotokan Karate for years and couldn’t agree more! Martial arts are such an excellent way to gain a more well rounded and resilient worldview. There’s so much more to the practice than just the strikes, punches, kicks, and grapples, on top of it being a very useful skill. Wishing you many more great training sessions to come!

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    • Oh yeah. The most important thing I feel is that I’m forced to learn more about myself. There’s just something about being helplessly thrown around by a more experienced opponent that allows me to see my real self. I wish you the same, fellow martial arts practitioner!

      Like

    • Oh yeah. I came across this quote: “Whenever something bad happens to you, ask yourself, ‘How is this the best thing that’s ever happened to me?'”

      It really puts a lot of things in perspective.

      Anyway, always grateful that you stopped by!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Love this Stuart. You make so many great points here. I honestly think I have learned as many valuable life lessons from my hobbies over the years as I have from my career. I believe that’s because we pursue hobbies out of passion whereas a job is really just a means to an end. Thanks again for another inspiring post.

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    • Still, I do envy those who pursue only one hobby their entire life, and specialise deeply in them.

      Such as a juggler mastering his art so well that he joins Cirque du Soleil or something.

      I wonder if there is a different level of learning when it comes to that detail of specialisation.

      Lovely comment, Michelle. Thanks for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, this was the John Baylon gym, which was in Pasay, and I’m not sure if that’s technically Manila. They’ve since shifted though. Made some cool friends there! Just like how I’ve made a cool friend in you here on WP :D

      Liked by 1 person

      • I see. Well, Pasay is just located south of the city of Manila — which is near the airport. Good thing the gym transferred to the Ermita district, also in the city of Manila. 🥋

        Thank you, Stuart! 👍

        Liked by 1 person

  10. finally read this post! When the title was about jiu-jitsu, not gonna lie, it reminded me of my ex boyfriend who was also a jiu-jitsu player back in the day. well apart from that I can see how much you’ve enjoyed doing this sport. Even the photos you’ve attached also reminded his good-old days playing it. Thanks for sharing and also unknowingly reminding one of my core-memories of him

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    • Oh wow, hopefully I didn’t stir up any sad memories? Would hope it was a wistful looking back at your memories.

      Am glad that my journey could connect with you in some way. That’s actually a privilege for me. So thanks for telling me that :)

      Like

  11. Truer words couldn’t be spoken.

    Showing up for whatever we want to accomplish is the only way it’ll get done. It might take longer than we want it to, but in the end, it’s done. If we don’t show up we’re guaranteed not to make any progress.

    It’s kind of like the people who complain about not winning the lottery. “Did you buy a ticket?”
    “No.”
    “Then you’re guaranteed not to win.”

    And this resonates with me this week, because after weeks of “showing up” and ripping out carpet, scraping off glue, moving furniture, and moving over 3000 lbs of vinyl planking, my flooring is finally done. Granted I didn’t do it alone, but it’s great to see the progress we made.

    Thank you Stuart for another thought-provoking post. :)

    Like

    • Oh yeah. I go to every jiu-jitsu class feeling as though I didn’t learn anything. Because I can’t absorb all that knowledge. In fact, I still feel like the same person I was when I started. But if I were to spar with my younger self now, I’d be sure to kick his ass, so ‘just showing up’ has some truth to it.

      Loved that you shared your own example of it too. Always glad to see how certain topics apply to lives in different parts of the world.

      Thanks so much for this lovely comment, Diane!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I almost feel like you’ve noticed I haven’t read your last two posts and are enticing me back with this long-sought-after post topic! Haha. :) I see you, Stuart! I see you! I still have your last two (is it more?) posts marked in my inbox as to-be-read, because I really do want to read them! This one especially! But I’ve been slammed at work lately. (Not on the mat. Sadly?) Anyhow, next week I’m on vacation, so hopefully I’ll get caught up!!

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  13. Though never having been involved with any martial arts, many of the overall philosophies match mine. Life is a marathon, and it’s a Springer trait to stay the course.

    The first photo makes me want to go into the other room and rip my shirt off to get a reaction from my wife. “Has the old man finally lost it?”🤣

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thanks for the intro to Betsy Stuart.. How did I miss her!
    you gave her a run for her money her, now how about a meet up on the mat?!!!
    Oh this could be fun. Look at you with all those wins and injuries.. sorry couldn’t resist. Gotta do what you love tho.
    💗
    Love this “Don’t be a fake guru teaching people to earn money when you can’t even pay rent. You can’t fake competence in the long run.”

    Although, seriously skateboarding is a lot more dangerous say I the mother of the boy who built a half pipe in the garage and I came home to a broken collar bone. didn’t stop him tho.

    Injuries happen anywhere true. My SIL, sounds so weird to say (this is new) finally wore a helmet for the first time hel sking and did fine until after the day and sat on the couch and hit his head on the ledge behind him and 8 months later is still dealing with a major concussion.

    Go figure.

    Great post as always Stuart!!
    ❣️

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    • Oh yeah. Would definitely love to meet up on the mats if we were geographically closer to each other. I love jiu-jitsu in that it’s like swing dancing. You could just hit up a local club and get right into it without even having to speak the same language.

      Skateboarding is dangerous indeed. There’s a reason it’s categorised as ‘extreme’, lol. Such a bad way to get injured for your SIL though. I myself have no problems deadlifting heavy loads, but then I squat and play with my dog and I pull my back. So yeah. If it happens, it happens, amirite?

      And lovely comment as always, Cindy!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Someday maybe.. we can arrange a meet up? Talk to me… lol.
        You know, like an arranged marriage, only in this case coming mat to mat.

        I bet I can get all of us to meet and greet you with swing dancing, front and center. 2 amazing Jui Jitsu masters coming head to head or foot to foot….haha and hey, I’m charging admission 🤣.

        Agreed on the skateboarding and extreme it is!!!
        A total bummer for my SIL him for sure!

        It happens, it happens WFT I hate to say.. ur right… but yeah. 😝

        Thanks Stuart. Always great to be here.
        🥰

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Greetings. It’s good to have a variety of activities in our lives. Makes things more interesting and more entertaining. In your case, writing exercises your brain. And Jiu-Jitsu exercises your body. And both activities provide lessons about, and insights into, life. Take care. Neil S.

    Like

    • Oh yeah. I find that I’m wired to constantly want new experiences, which can end up looking wishy-washy sometimes. Thankfully, a few of those pursuits have stuck, teaching me a thing or two about long-term grit. Thanks for your wonderful comment, Neil!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I totally agree that life teaches us lessons in the things that we do. As I get older, I enjoy picking up new things as well. I feel its helped me to become a lot more well rounded!

    Thanks for a great post, I immediately giggled at the mic drop lol! ☺️

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    • I think that’s why I’m a hobby collector—because each new pursuit helps me look at life in a totally different way. The downside is that new hobbies often cost money and time, so there is a limit to how many I can adopt.

      Always great to induce giggles through words, so I’m super thankful you said that!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Very true observations, they will take you far. Got to enjoy a close encounter with a consultant who clearly was lacking mat time. Can’t say I’ve ever given Jiu-Jitsu a try but I was into Krav Maga for a while.

    Like

    • There’s just an internal confidence from putting in the time that’s irreplaceable by any other means. Unfortunately, it doesn’t apply to all fields. Subjective topics, for instance, are prone to have charlatans. Even the more traditional martial arts have this ‘listen to your master’ mentality when the master doesn’t even look like he’d practised his art. Always glad to have you around, Danny!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Great post Stuart! It’s so true that you can learn life lessons from almost anything you do. I love how you make the connections. I agree with all the points you made and especially liked the bit about not being a fake guru. It’s something I am conscious of when choosing a topic to write about. If I haven’t done it, can’t do it, or can’t stand behind the philosophy it’s not my place to try to tell others how or why to do it. There are enough fakes on the web, needn’t add to it.
    Keep up the great writing! I always look forward o your posts.

    Like

    • It’s interesting how the more things I pick up, the more I’m able to connect the dots between all these unrelated vocations. Like, I can even draw some parallels between cooking and life too, which is another pursuit I’d just embarked on.

      And great on you for being true to yourself. Heaven knows we’re already inundated by fake gurus everywhere, in every industry. Here’s to always adding value in a truthful way!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Nice article Stuart. I like martial arts for its discipline and for allowing a person to express their competitive nature in a healthy form. I’ve tried getting into BJJ gyms, but that hasn’t worked.

    Maybe I’ll try the new gyms if I ever switch the cities.

    Also, that tip about showing up? That is so true for writing. When I was working on my web serial sporadically, I barely got 20 chapters done. But when I switched to daily writing, I already have 158 chapters ready to go whenever I decide to publish the thing. Not to mention, how much I moved forward in the story. I felt previously that my life would end before I completed the thing. But I don’t have that feeling anymore.

    I do think that writing cannot be faked either. If you try to present yourself as some experienced writer, while in reality being nothing of the sort, it’ll bite you hard.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yeah. I’ve always known you as a martial arts fan. And in many ways, BJJ is just like chess. Using our bodies. I hope you manage to complete your quest in finding a gym soon, as I know you’ve been at it for a while already.

      Wow, 158 chapters? That’s a lot! And it really does work, doesn’t it? I myself had ‘worked on’ a novel in my head for eight years. But it’s only when I started actually writing that the story began to progress. Before that, all those years, the story just remained in chapter one in my mind. It’s as if the writing itself was the thinking.

      Judging from the tons of writing courses available online (by some pretty shady characters), I’d say that it doesn’t stop people from trying to fake it. But then again, that’s the world, isn’t it?

      Thanks as always for your wonderful comment!

      Like

  20. Wow, very well said. You can get injured just by slipping in a bath tub. Yes, I did after giving my kid a bath and I had an injury of a basketball player. Small drops, make a ocean, so even if you are learning a bit today it is so much better than not learning at all. Completely agree with you on everything. Great blog. Will be sharing this with my High School kid.

    Like

    • I’m so honoured you’d share this with your child. Don’t know how else I can convey this amazing gesture of yours.

      And yeah, we can’t hold on to the sand of life, cos it only seeps more the harder we squeeze. Sometimes we have to accept that good and bad things may come despite our efforts, so it’s best to take each day as it comes.

      Toilet accidents are really dangerous. I was lucky I didn’t bang my head on the bathtub and only broke my hand instead. I think it’s one of the major causes of death too. So yeah. I’ve been particular about toilet safety since, lol.

      Thanks for visiting as always!

      Liked by 1 person

  21. I love Betsy too – you are right, she tells great stories! But I love your lessons and how you apply them to life. Especially learning is not linear and learning is optional. Whoa – great lessons indeed. Thank you, Stuart!

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Haha! Not a statistician. Check. Not a scientist. Check. Not a communist. Check Check! But a jiujitsu grappler extraordinaire applause applause I’m constantly marveling how you can join the dots between our writing lives and every other facet and experience you have. This has been not just a fun post to read but also gives us your ardent readers such insights into your life hacks or just how everything you know and live through can help the rest of us too. Thanks Stu! Always a joy to read your blog. This is another winner for sure!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Ha. That’s my schtick. I don’t have much to write about, to be honest, so I try to find the confluence between the things I do often :P

      What a thoughtful post, Kelvin. Always appreciate your support, but this comment really made my day. Thanks for always coming up with such positive comments!

      Liked by 2 people

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